The story lines are endless when it comes to Sunday’s NFC showdown between the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles.
Two first-year head coaches leading their respective teams to above .500.
Two defensive coordinators going up against their former squads.
Two teams with vastly different strengths, pitting a dynamic running back/unique spread attack against a defense that is stingy against the run and still effective against the pass.
Add in the history between the two sides — Cardinals lost 48-20 five years ago in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Weekend only to take down the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game on the way to the Super Bowl — and it should make for a fascinating battle between two playoff hopefuls.
Here’s what to watch for Sunday:
Keys for Cardinals offense:
1. Keep Eagles’ defense on the field
Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said this week that the Eagles’ league-worst pass defense (300.1 yards per game) is somewhat misleading because Chip Kelly’s offense isn’t on the field all that often.
Although the up-tempo scheme does no favors for Bill Davis’ unit, the Cardinals can also do their part to keep the Eagles’ defense on the field.
It starts with running the football.
Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington combined for 104 yards last week. They were both decisive, hit holes early and helped keep drives alive.
Even with Ellington out Sunday, whether it’s Mendenhall, Stepfan Taylor or Alfonso Smith, Arizona needs to make a conscious effort to win the time of possession battle by a considerable margin.
2. Take shots downfield
Carson Palmer didn’t just take shots in the team’s 40-11 route of the Colts, he made calculated decisions.
Any time Indy had one-on-one coverage on Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, Palmer looked to exploit the matchup.
That’s the luxury of having two big-play receivers on the outside.
Misleading or otherwise, 300 yards is still a lot to give up in a given game.
Philadelphia has a talented front seven with the likes of Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans.
It’s not as stout in the secondary. Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin will likely take turns on Fitzgerald and Floyd.
All three can be exploited.
3. Hold on to the football
During the current four-game win streak, Palmer has thrown two interceptions and been sacked 10 times.
Both numbers show a vast improvement in terms of his decision making and pass protection from the first half of the 2013 season.
But both areas could still improve, especially if Arizona is serious about staying in playoff contention.
The Eagles have 24 sacks and 19 takeaways on the year, both statistics that put them toward the bottom half of the NFC. If Palmer and the O-line continue to play how they have, the offense should show no signs of slowing Sunday.
Noteworthy Stat: In five career games, Larry Fitzgerald has nine career touchdowns.
Keys for the Eagles offense:
1. Play clean football
As opposing teams have found out in 2013, when you turn the ball over against the Cardinals, bad things usually follow.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has thrown 16 touchdowns in eight appearances this season, but he hasn’t thrown an interception yet.
Although he’s not particularly quick, Foles has been a competent leader in Kelly’s system, because he is an accurate passer with an ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly.
If the former Arizona standout can keep that trend going Sunday, he’ll certainly put his team in a position to win.
2. Stay with the run game
Bruce Arians called Kelly’s system a “great college offense” earlier this week. Kelly didn’t take offense and responded by saying that his scheme is really a “see-coast offense” — meaning when they see something they like they added to the playbook.
One thing that has already been successful this season is the zone-read.
Nick Foles is improving more and more with his pre-snap reads with each passing week and because of this, teams of late have stopped putting seven or eight guys in the box.
Without that kind of threat in the box, LeSean McCoy has much more freedom to be LeSean McCoy
McCoy leads the league with 1,009 rushing yards and has already eclipsed the 100-yard on five separate occasions.
While Arizona has the second-ranked rush defense, it hasn’t seen a run game like Philadelphia’s.
In a battle of strength vs. strength, the Eagles shouldn’t go away from theirs.
3. Get Cooper touches
When Riley Cooper has reached the 100-yard mark, the Eagles have won.
Since taking over as the Eagles starting quarterback, Foles has made it a point to get the fourth-year wideout more involved.
In wins over the Buccaneers, Raiders and Packers, Cooper has combined to catch 17 passes for 361 yards and six touchdowns.
With DeSean Jackson likely matched up with Patrick Peterson most of the afternoon, Philly would be wise to try and win battles on Jerraud Powers’ side of the field.
Noteworthy Stat: LeSean McCoy has 151 yards rushing and a touchdown in two career games vs. Cardinals.
Keys for the Cardinals defense:
1. Play fast:
Todd Bowles’ unit has plenty of standout athletes like Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Daryl Washington and Calias Campbell.
Those four will certainly have to win their individual matchups for the Cardinals to get a fifth straight win, but it will also come down to substitutions.
Not only will have personnel have to come on and off the field in a timely manner, but second-stringers like Frostee Rucker, Jasper Brinkley and Marcus Bernard will have to play big.
They’ll be needed, especially going up against an offense that only stays on the field a little more than 40 percent of the time.
2. Get Foles to make a folly:
Nick Foles has been a model for ball security during his two seasons in the NFL.
In 15 career games, the Eagles starting quarterback has been picked off just five times. His time at Tucson, however, would suggest he’s not necessarily as clean as he has played in Philly.
During his junior and senior seasons at Arizona, Foles threw 24 combined interceptions in an offensive-minded conference.
The key — as it has always been — is to get pressure on the former Wildcat. The Dallas Cowboys did a tremendous job of getting to Foles back in October, sacking him three times and hitting him four other times — the last of which knocked him out of the game with a concussion in the third quarter.
Overall, Philadelphia’s O-line has done a decent job of protecting Foles, but all it takes is a few decent shots to change the complexion of the game.
3. Win the point of contact:
LeSean McCoy might be one of the league’s shiftiest running backs, so putting him an offense that’s designed to give running backs plenty of space to roam is a perfect fit.
With that said, the Cardinals can limit the damage McCoy does on the ground by finishing tackles at the first point of contact. That goes for passing plays as well, where the former Pitt tailback is ninth in the NFL in Yards after Catch (YAC) with 420.
Hit him low and hit him early and it’s likely McCoy doesn’t reach the century mark.
Noteworthy stat: Arizona has only allowed one running back, San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore, to run for over 100 yards this season. He amassed 101 back in Week 7.
Keys for the Eagles defense:
1. Get off the field:
As mentioned above, Chip Kelly’s offense does not do any favors for Bill Davis’ defense.
The Eagles can help themselves out, though. It starts with finishing off series — something the Colts struggled mightily with last Sunday.
Arizona completed 7-of-14 opportunities against Indianapolis on its way to putting up a season-high 40 points. If Philadelphia wants to keep the crowd engaged and its offense on the field, it needs to win on third down.
If Carson Palmer gets into a rhythm with an array of third down conversions, the Eagles are in trouble.
2. Hold Arizona to 21 points or less:
The Eagles defense won’t be mistaken for one of the prolific units in the NFL, but over the last two months, they’ve been rather stingy when it comes to points.
In fact, they are the only team to allow 21 points or less to each of their last seven opponents. The Cardinals’ offense on the other hand has started to its stride, scoring at least 27 points in its last four contests.
Although Philadelphia has the better statistical offense, a track meet doesn’t serve it will, either. So if the Eagles can keep their 21-point or less streak alive, that likely will bode well to their chances of holding on to the NFC East lead.
3. Force a quick turnover:
The last two times Arizona lost in Week 7 and Week to San Francisco and Seattle, the games began with first quarter turnovers.
While that trend continued into the Atlanta game, for the most part teams it’s been put to rest these past few weeks.
Palmer has had back-to-back turnover-free games, and in turn the offense has combined for 67 points. The Eagles are averaging over a pick per game (13 interceptions this season), and they’d be wise to increase that total in the first 15 minutes of Sunday’s contest.
Noteworthy Stat: In it’s five losses, Philadelphia has given up an average of 28.6 points per game.